Ambulance lineup at St. Boniface Hospital draws fire from paramedics union

Long ambulance lineups seen outside St. Boniface hospital this week are a symptom of flu season, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. But the union representing Manitoba's paramedics says the closure of Winnipeg clinics is also to blame.

Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says emergency department is busier because of flu season

Ambulances are seen lined up at St. Boniface hospital in this photo, which has been widely circulated on Facebook. (Submitted via Facebook)

Long ambulance lineups outside Winnipeg's St. Boniface hospital — photos of which were widely shared on social media this week — are a symptom of flu season, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

But the union representing Manitoba's paramedics says the closure of Winnipeg clinics is also to blame, and the lineups are preventing paramedics from responding to emergencies.

The photos, which were taken Tuesday and Wednesday this week, show at least half a dozen ambulances parked in the St. Boniface emergency department bay. According to a spokesperson for the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, it's typical to see around three ambulances waiting in the bays outside most emergency departments in the city.

In a statement, the WRHA said the flu is causing more people to flood emergency departments, making them busier. As well, more ambulances have been needed to transfer patients to other sites, or home, in order to free up beds.

"The patients aren't in the ambulances. They are moved from the ambulances into the emergency department. There is an area where emergency staff come in through to the triage desk," said Lori Lamont, chief operating officer for the WRHA, on Thursday.

MGEU blames QuickCare, urgent care closures

But the president of of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents 40,000 members in the province, says lineups at the bays have occurred all week at other emergency departments too, including those at the Health Sciences Centre and Concordia and Grace hospitals — and as paramedics wait to hand their patients off to emergency room staff, they're not responding to emergencies.

"Right now the paramedics are very, very concerned with how long it's taking to get a patient off the stretcher so that they're available for service somewhere else," said MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky.

"There's so many patients in the emergency department, they just can't offload the stretchers, they can't offload their patients, so they have to stay with the patient, which is now delaying them getting back out on the road to be able to address other emergencies that are happening within the city of Winnipeg."

She said paramedics are picking up patients who likely would have gone to one of several recently closed QuickCare clinics or the Misericordia urgent care centre — which closed in October — for their flu. Now, they have no choice but to go to an emergency department, Gawronsky said.

"The system is not prepared to pick up the slack of where we've had the closures. When you've got an ER closed, four more QuickCare clinics have closed, and the urgent care at the [Misericordia] have closed, somewhere the system has to pick up the overload, and it's just not prepared to do that right now."

Lamont said the health region is working on improving the wait times for paramedics at emergency departments, and the target offload time — the time it takes for paramedics to transfer a patient to emergency staff — has improved since the spring.

"We have been working with sort of a 60-minute cap and we're looking to move that cap down. We're looking to move that down from between 60 to 30 minutes," she said.

A number of factors affect transfer time, she said, including documentation and communication between ambulance and emergency room staff, as well as the condition of the patients, who are triaged among all other patients waiting for care.

But Gawronsky says the photos of ambulance lineups are a snapshot of government-imposed cutbacks putting too much pressure on patients, paramedics and emergency room staff.

"I'm asking the government to please come and sit down with the folks that are doing the front-line patient care," she said.

"This is Phase 1. What's going to happen when Phase 2 and 3 come into play and we're not done with Phase 1? It scares me."